More than Possessions: The Role of Wisdom Literature in the Time of Christ

Lk. 12:13-21

“For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Lk.12: 15.

When Jesus makes this statement He is following the tradition of Wisdom Literature. Several times this summer I have mentioned Wisdom Literature. It consists of observations on life. It is “sage” comments about the created world, which is seen as offering clues as to patterns of behavior both of man and of God. There was in the time of Jesus no concept of “nature.” Even so, everyday life is seen as worth observing, for it yields things that help us to understand others and ourselves.

Israel in the time of Jesus was not all of one piece. It was a crazy patchwork quilt of cultures, people, tribes, ideas and religions. It was a diverse and pluralistic society. As a center of trade and agriculture it was constantly exposed to various patterns of life, which left their imprints upon the Palestinian area that we call Israel. Empires and nations poured their soldiers, people and ideas into Israel. The influence of the Greeks under Alexander gave rise to what we call Hellenistic Judaism, in which the Greek way of thinking about things merged with the Semitic way of thinking of things. Judaism, the synagogues and the temple had to interpret and live with a madly changing world. The traditions of the Law and the prophets co-existed with other world views (remember the Magi from the “East” who came to Bethlehem?)

Wisdom literature, the observation of the sages (rabbis and wise men) helped bridge the cultures of the Greco-Roman world and the Hebraic Semitic world. We have an example of Wisdom Literature in today¹s Old Testament passage from Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, parts of the Psalms and Job make up the canon of Wisdom Literature in the Bible, although pithy sayings and aphorisms are scattered throughout both the Old and New Testaments.) The speaker in today’s passage is a king who ruled over much and sought by the use of wisdom to consider the events, lives and accomplishments of his realm. He built houses, planted vineyards, had slaves and children, tasted the good things and had good times, but all was vanity. He asks, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.”

Obviously this guy needs a “happiness pill.” He reminds me of my mother-in-law, Gladys, who greeted each new event with the remark, “Well, you never know.” The example of the “teacher” in today’s quote is one end of the spectrum of observations on life. There is a sense of despair; all is “vanity.” Now the term that is translated “vanity” means “passing,” “transient,” “amorphous.” But the word “vanity” works well, too. My mother had a dressing table when I was a small boy that she called a “vanity.” It had several mirrors attached to it. The vanity was a reflection of what passed before it. Wisdom literature reflects what passes before it. It focuses on the moment. A lot can be learned from studying what is in front of oneself, but there are limits. The limits can lead to fatalism and despair. If all you can see is the here and now, life can seem pretty grim and the only way to keep going is to just “tough things out.” Semitic Wisdom had its counterpart in Greek Stoicism.

So Wisdom literature helped the Hebrews bridge the culture gap to the Greco-roman world of thought. It worked as a cultural bridge. But it also did something else. It served as a counter balance to the unbridled fantasies of escapism and denial found in apocalyticism. If you don’t like the way things are relabel them. “This is not war, it is a police action.” Or if denial doesn¹t work flights of fancy can make things better. The books of Revelation and of Daniel use flights of imagination to convey truths. Gnostic literature is full of spiraling cosmologies in which the heavens and the other world look like a DNA string of emanations. Such flights of fancy invite magic and witch craft into religion and every day life.

Finally, when you have considerable attention paid to observations on the patterns of life, you are using inductive and deductive reasoning. Reason becomes important. While the Greeks exalted Reason, the Hebrews exalted Wisdom. Wisdom was something that existed from which we could take a bite. Wisdom was “out there,” sort of like a Platonic form. It informed people and was a good thing to have. Wisdom was not quite worshiped, but almost. Wisdom is the predecessor of the concept of the Holy Spirit. Because the Jewish Christians were familiar with the concept of Wisdom, they were able to embrace the concept of the Holy Spirit. (Note that the term “concept” is not quite right, but it is the best we have at the moment.) Likewise, the use of the term “The Word” in the Gospel of John owes its heritage to that of the concept of Wisdom.

The genius of the Hebrews was that they not only valued the created world and Wisdom, they also valued the intense religious experience, the encounter that some had with the Holy Other. Moses and the prophets experienced profound insights into the meaning of existence. Those experiences were real and part of the created world. They led to monotheism and were testimonies to a transcendent God who shaped history and revealed Himself in the Law and the prophets. The Jews believed that God¹s footprints were all over creation and that they were going somewhere. While Wisdom literature was a counter weight to flights of escapism and unbridled fancy, the Law and the prophets were a counter weight to the one dimensionalism of Wisdom literature and to the despair to which sole concentration on oneself and one¹s existence can lead (as seen in today¹s Old Testament passage.)

When Jesus answers the man who wants part of his brother’s inheritance, Jesus accuses him of greed. He then tells the parable of the rich man who had everything and stuffed his barns, thinking that he could eat, drink and be merry. The Jews who heard this parable, heard echoes of the patriarchs and of Joseph who went to Egypt and served as steward over the harvests of Pharaoh. Just as Pharaoh missed out on the fullness of life, so too the man in the story missed out on the fullness of life, which includes the reality of a God who governs and reveals himself in history. In effect Jesus is saying that concentration only upon the good things of this life misses part of the inheritance — that part being the Law and the prophets. When Jesus says, “be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” He borrows from the tradition of Wisdom literature. He joins that observation with the heritage of the law and the prophets by concluding with,” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

You and I live in a diverse and pluralistic society. Some in the sciences glorify reason and wisdom. Many in business only want to possess more and more. The role of Wisdom literature in the Judaic Christian tradition while reminding us that creation is good and to be valued, also reminds us of the vanity of focusing solely on ourselves.

The genius of Christianity, the miracle of Jesus Christ, is that creation is affirmed by the incarnation (God becoming man) while at the same time attesting to the importance of a transcendent God who reveals Himself in the Law (reinterpreted by Jesus in the Law and the Beatitudes) and the manifestation of God as seen in the prophets. In Jesus Wisdom, Law and the prophets merge.

You and I live in a rich community of faith. As we live in Christ through our faith, charity and participation in sacraments, we live with a full inheritance, for we live not trying to keep our tradition for ourselves but seeking to share our inheritance with one another and with the world. “For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
Amen. Fr. Gage